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The Öræfajökull Volcano: What It Is, And What’s Going On

The Öræfajökull Volcano: What It Is, And What’s Going On

Photos by
Kristinnstef/Wikimedia Commons

Published November 21, 2017

As scientists in Iceland follow activity at Öræfajökull, learning from Icelandic history may give us clues as to what may happen should the volcano erupt.

A new post from volcanologists at the University of Iceland shows satellite images taken of Öræfajökull, a giant volcano under a glacier of the same name. These images show that several crevasses have appeared in the centre of the caldera, and have been increasing.

While earth scientists studying the volcano are reluctant to give any sort of timeframe for an eruption – as always, eruptions of even active volcanoes are notoriously impossible to predict – there has been considerable geothermal heat measured at the caldera, and the release of gases has been detected. As such, nothing is being ruled out.

This naturally raises the question: if Öræfajökull does erupt, what could be in store for us? Looking to Iceland’s past may give us some clues.

In an extensive overview of the volcano posted by Kjarninn, they point out that while Katla may have captured international attention, Öræfajökull is no slouch, either. It is, in fact, the largest volcano in Iceland and the second largest in Europe; only Mt Etna in Sicily is larger.

Öræfajökull has also erupted before, to devastating effect. Twice, in fact: in 1362 and 1727. The former eruption was enormous – some 10 cubic kilometres of material was blown into the atmosphere, and the district around the volcano was uninhabited for about 40 years afterwards. It was the largest eruption in Iceland since Hekla erupted in 800 BC.

The eruption in 1727 was smaller, but was nonetheless devastating. Three people and many farm animals were killed in the ensuing glacial flooding that the eruption provoked.

Glacial flooding is probably the greatest danger posed now, should Öræfajökull erupt. The ice that covers the caldera is estimated to be about 550 metres thick, and rests hundreds of metres above sea level. Even a small eruption would be likely to provoke massive flooding into the region. Fortunately, not many people live in the area, and preparedness and evacuation procedures are much better now than they were in the 18th century.

If the eruption is larger, it could mean trouble for air travel: remember, Eyjafjallajökull was also capped with ice, and that didn’t stop it from sending a giant plume of ash into the air that shut down air travel across Europe. For now, though, there are as yet still no signs of an imminent eruption from Öræfajökull. But that doesn’t mean we’re not paying really close attention to it.


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